The Emerging Moscow-Ankara Axis

The United States has created “chaos” in its management of foreign affairs, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu said on August 13. “There is confusion in the U.S. administration, and no one knows who is doing what,” Çavusoglu said after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Ankara. “We are at a turning point in the world . . . to multipolarity,” Lavrov responded at a joint news conference. He called new U.S. sanctions, including those targeting Russian and Turkish economy, an “unlawful and illegitimate” policy which will ultimately undermine the dollar as a settlement currency.

The two ministers further said that Russia and Turkey would take steps to “enhance their strategic partnership.” They agreed to continue talks for the full implementation of Astana agreement, which envisages creation of de-escalation zones in Syria and includes Iran (much to U.S. chagrin) as a key signatory. The “strategic partnership” also has a major economic and military dimension. Turkey is enthusiastic about the TurkStream natural gas pipeline from Russia, which is under construction. It has started major work on a $20 billion, 1,200 MW Russian-built nuclear power plant at Akkuyu. It has paid $2.5 billion for Russia’s state-of-the-art S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. Trade, tourism, investment, arms sales and military-to-military ties have reached unprecedented levels, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Two days after meeting Lavrov, on August 15, Çavusoglu expressed displeasure at a White House statement that President Donald Trump was “frustrated” because Turkey had not released evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson who is accused of being connected to the 2016 coup. Two weeks ago Washington imposed sanctions on two Turkish cabinet ministers after the Administration’s hopes that Rev. Brunson was about to be freed were dashed; in fact he was only moved from pre-trial detention to house arrest.

The Turkish lira has subsequently lost 28 percent of its value against the dollar, and an astounding 40 percent since the beginning of this year. This has prompted Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, to accuse the U.S. and others on August 11 of waging war on Turkey. Speaking in the northeastern province of Rize, he said that dollars, euros and gold were now “the bullets, cannonballs and missiles of the economic war being waged against our country.” The most important thing, he added “is breaking the hands firing these weapons.”

Back to Çavusoglu’s statements on August 15. “The U.S. or any other country should not just focus on their own frustrations . . . We also have frustrations [with regard to U.S. policies],” he said. He singled out the U.S. political and military support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, a Kurdish group which Turkey accuses of terrorism. He also mentioned the U.S. refusal to act over Turkey’s demand for extradition of Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania and whom Ankara accuses of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt.

One of the most intriguing questions for the Greater Middle East at the moment is whether the strategic partnership between Turkey and Russia has the potential to develop into a regional alliance. Some historians may consider this unlikely, in view of the two empires’ chronic hostility and geopolitical rivalry between 1568 and 1918. In the course of those three and a half centuries, they fought twelve often very bloody wars. The argument is misleading: there are no permanent animosities among powers, but there are permanent interests. France and England (after 1707, Britain) had been perennial enemies from 1204 until 1815, and fought some two-dozen wars in those six centuries, costing millions of lives; yet by the mid-19th century they became friends, signed the entente cordiale in 1904, and fought as allies in 1914. Germany and France had been sworn foes between 1870 and 1945, yet after 1949 managed to turn a new leaf.

It can be argued that Russia and Turkey are civilizationally far more different than France, Britain or Germany. Yet civilizational and cultural dissimilarities have not prevented Russia and China to forge a vibrant, mutually beneficial strategic partnershim. Let us recall, moreover, that at the height of her powers Ottoman Turkey under Suleyman the Magnificent entered a formal alliance with France in 1536 and (to King Francois’ eternal shame) collaborated with her in the Italian Wars of 1536-38 and 1542-46.

Erdogan is an autocrat and a devout Muslim who wants to eradicate what remains of the Kemalist legacy at home, but he is also a pragmatic and shrewd politician. His relations with Moscow reached a low point after Turkey shot down a Russian bomber in November 2015, yet their subsequent rapprochement has been swift and based on common interests, primarily in Syria. Erdogan had previously demanded Assad’s removal from power; he now takes a more nuanced position. He believes that any deal on Syria he can reach with Russia and Iran would be more to Turkey’s advantage than a settlement involving the U.S. and America’s Kurdish protégés. Overall, he shares with Vladimir Putin the desire to curb U.S. influence in the Middle East.

As for the Russian leader, strengthening ties with Turkey has additionally undermined Western attempts to “isolate” him. Unlike the U.S. Russia has no problem with Erdogan’s domestic policies and practices. Putin recognizes in Turkey’s president a successful and strong political leader, someone he can do business with. Indeed, two months after winning 53 percent of the vote in last June’s presidential election Erdogan is now both the head of state and government with unprecedented powers and an effectively unlimited mandate.

Turkey’s growing regional clout is a rare example of a collapsed great power making a comeback. It has reshaped the geopolitics of the Greater Middle East and made Ankara a key factor in any regional equation. In the years ahead Turkey will likely follow an ever more assertive foreign policy, and her close cooperation with Russia is a key element in Erdogan’s strategy. As for Syria, he will continue to dampen his hostility to Bashar in order to legitimize the establishment of a primarily anti-Kurdish zone of Turkish control in northwestern Syria.

Turkey’s relations with the United States are at a low point now, but they may improve if Trump follows his instincts and disengage from Syria. The policy of supporting Syria’s Kurds has never made any strategic sense. It should be discontinued, unless it is the U.S. objective to encourage Kurdish ambitions and hopes—not only in Syria but also in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran—which would be certain to destabilize even further the least stable region on planet. 


[Image via Tasnim News Agency [CC BY 4.0]]

Srdja Trifkovic

Srdja Trifkovic

Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, foreign affairs editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.

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